When I was a child, born in 1980, I dreamed about the Millennium, and as a result I was fascinated with people alive at the turn of the previous century. How curious it must have been to have been born before the American West was settled, and live to see the blacksmith be replaced by the mechanic as the automobile came about. Stranger still to have been alive before women got the vote, or before penicillin. I wondered what I would see in the next century.

Some of it is pretty cool. Computers, digital formats of files, websites without glittering gifs, the ability to bank & pay bills online...all of that is pretty cool. You have to admit much of the rest is dubious. Shock sites and LOLcat speak...I hope the aliens don't come to Earth now, because boy, are we gonna be embarrassed if they do.

For writers in particular there are some great ups and downs. Tips & tricks are a click away, find reviewers, editors, publishers, or self-publishing can all be done paperless at your desk. So what price have we paid? Well, many, actually, but the main one is research. Why not set your novel in a town you've never seen, Wikipedia has all the stats! (The previous sentence is exactly why we need a sarcasm font. Sartalics has my vote.)

I keep running into this in books I read. Ever wonder why most of my stories are written in Chicago? It's where I live. I'm 15 minutes from downtown, I take the L and buses everywhere, and I know the neighborhoods by name, landmarks, and smell. Go ahead, Google 'West Town, Chicago, IL' and see what it gets. Does it tell you the Latin Kings are leaving and the Disciples are taking over? Does it tell you the Disciples are in 2 factions, and the ones north of Division are actually damn nice? Whenever I walk through there from a friend's home, I usually stop and have a smoke with a few. It's always nice to talk to fellow gun enthusiasts.

It might tell you some of these things, but it won't tell you that West Town butts up against 2 neighborhoods that smell strongly of sofrito, yet West Town smells of rain all year long, even in snow, and the rats in the allies are strangely much smaller there, though there are fewer cats.

Honestly, the cities I know well enough to write about are Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis, Portland (OR), Phoenix (AZ), and San Juan (Puerto Rico). I just feel of all these Chicago has the personality I like. Now I am currently under contract writing an erotic romance set primarily in New Orleans, and just north of it in bayou country. I have never hit up Wikipedia or travel sites for any info other than driving time estimates, so Google Maps is it. I'm lucky in that I have a best friend who grew up in the very area my heroine is from, literally in the swamp, and from her I know how gators act, what houses look like, and just how many accents exist in a town of less than 2,000 people. I still do what writers did a century ago: I talk to people.

When I need to write about Tokyo, I consult a friend who lives there. When I need to know about Military procedure, I talk to my father, a retired Marine. When I want to know about beer, I talk my ex-husband, a brewer and a friend.You should always research an unknown subject with a person in the know.

I have a friend writing a gaming system (similar to D&D) who needed to know about spirituality and women in 15th century China. He was stuck; nothing on the Internet helped. Like any good writer with a million contacts (hey, emailing people and striking up loose friendships will always pay off, I swear) I happen to know the professor of women's studies who's an expert in Asian history at a local university. I introduced them, and voilĂ ! Solved.

Do you know where movies go wrong? They either don't hire experts or hire the wrong ones. This is why almost every film will make your head hurt if you stop to think about it. Novels and literature are held to higher standards, and damn it, writers should be too.

You may not understand the power of research. Look at reviews of books on Amazon, and see the ones rated most helpful. Yes, they almost always flesh out the plot description, but they tend to praise the realistic characters or situations, and the research. You know what I'm talking about...if you read a story set in the place you live and it's wrong, it will take you out of the story and piss you off more than a misspelling. I still haven't forgiven an Italian author I read 6 years ago for assuming all boutiques in Chicago are Michigan Ave when most of the stores she described are in the mall Water Tower Place, which is on Michigan Ave, but is a fucking mall.

The worst is when the character of a place is off, or the technical abilities of an object are. Show an IT pro the movie "Hackers" and listen to their complaints. Let a history buff read Dickens and listen to them moan in ecstasy.

This time of year is depressing, and some people find it harder to write (some lucky bastards find it easier). If you're a writer, start making contacts! The old advice from 25 years a go stands: writing about cops and don't know any? Arrange a ride-along with your local force. Need to know about Victorian politics? Email a professor at a college who specializes in it. Want to know about New York but have never been? Ask around your friends until you find someone who has. Talk to the experts!

What we lose in the modern era is what everyone loses; in the digital age it is human contact. You can read blog posts, even this one, but how do you know it's the truth? Talking face to face lets you read body language, and people tend to be more honest with direct eye contact, and also more eloquent when speaking. Most people on the Internet claim to be experts, a claim that wouldn't stand up in 30 seconds of face-to-face conversation.

So if you haven't, start cultivating contacts. This is why you should collect research before writing, or after you're done. Leave a marker such as "%$^%$^%$^" in place of a description you need and write on. Once you're done and see the full context you need, consult your expert.For example, maybe you started to write about Anchorage, Alaska in the winter, but by the end of your story you need to know how it differs in summer. That's why you save your experts for when you can use them most efficiently.

And always remember to thank them in your story's forward. It helps you to live one of the most important mottos of a writer's life, borrowed from the Girl Scouts: Make new friends, but keep the old, one is silver and the other's gold.

If we had another about this aspect of research, it would be: Wikipedia is like your super-smart friend in college who smoked pot all the time. Sure, he knew all about Star Trek and the French Revolution, but seriously, he thought Ronald Regan was a Russian spy and/or alien.

Lastly, stick to writing what you know if you don't have these contacts yet. In my story Auto Erotica I discuss car racing and cars. This is something I know. Born in the Motor City I can fix most classic muscle car engines (bless them, they don't need computers) and in the mid to late 90's I was part of the racing scene here that got Racine Ave on the South Side shut down. Sure, when I got into a tiff with a moron who knew me on there he had his friends spam with comments saying I know nothing about cars. I was pleased by how many people came forward and confirmed I do (I deleted all the petty comments because they don't help readers.)

These things do happen, so remember when researching: stick to the things you know cold, and consult experts. Leave Wikipedia for the idiots of the next generation pursuing their now-meaningless college diplomas without knowing how to truly learn. Keep that lazy apathy out of fiction!